Some Notes on Rabbi Ralph Messer

The recent “enthronement” of Bishop Eddie Long by “Hebrew Roots” Rabbi Ralph Messer continues to garner journalistic fascination. The Florida Courier reports:

Orlando, Fla. is abuzz with word that Rabbi Ralph Messer is allegedly coming to New Destiny Christian Center, founded by the late Zachery Tims, to make Paula White a ‘queen’ during a Super Bowl Sunday service.

No evidence is forthcoming, but Messer is certainly known to Paula White and her ex-husband Randy – in 2007, Messer was on hand with his Torah scroll when Randy White returned to the pulpit of Without Walls International Church following the divorce announcement. On that occasion, though, White merely “clutched” a Torah scroll (according to Tampa Bay Online) – unlike Eddie Long, he wasn’t wrapped in it. There is a popular trend towards the use of Jewish devotional items in evangelical Christian worship, as I discussed here.

Messer’s links to the Whites show that Messer is more than a marginal figure, despite his eccentric religious teachings. In his presentation at Long’s church, Messer made a number of bizarre assertions that owe little to either Judaism, Christianity, or science: these have been systematically debunked by Wil Gafney, and include the claim that a Torah scroll is kept hidden from view and that only one with “great authority” is allowed to touch it; that the scroll’s cover is known as its “foreskin”; that scrolls are only given to cities “in need of anointing”; and that DNA chromosomes look like Hebrew letters. Clearly, Messer’s religion is centred around the notion that a Torah scroll  is essentially a fetish object, imbued with magical and phallic power.

However, these strange beliefs have not isolated Messer from larger religious currents: rather, he has carved an exotic niche for himself. According to his Simchat Torah Beit Midrash (STBM) website:

For more than 30 years, Rabbi Messer has facilitated inter-faith discussions between denominations, cultures, and various groups, across the country, and internationally as a popular keynote conference speaker and minister. In addition, Rabbi Messer is a frequent host on cable/satellite networks such as Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), God’s Learning Channel (GLC), and Daystar Television Network. 

Other versions of this blurb reference particular evangelists:

…STBM has ties with other international ministers including Rev. Kenneth Copeland, Pastor Paula White, and Bishop T.D. Jakes.

Messer also has links with churches in the Caribbean,and an advert posted by Messer’s organisation to Youtube urges Jamaicans to “Learn more about your Hebrew Roots”. However, this is not some kind of Black Israelite theology – these Hebrew Roots are “something greater than bloodlines”, and come from a proper understanding the Torah. This will lead to personal empowerment prosperity, “thriving and becoming the true kings and priests of this kingdom on the earth”.

Messer’s Torah-wrapping antic with Eddie Long caused particular offence because of his claims about the scroll’s provenance – he asserted that it had been rescued from Auschwitz-Birkenau (or “Auschwitz-Burkendau”, according to his pronunciation), having been thrown from one of the transport trains by Jews as they were being led in. Messer claims to “collect” such scrolls, which he  says are too valuable to be insured – a video here shows him presenting another scroll, also supposedly rescued in the same way, to Bishop Keith Butler of Word of Faith International Christian Center. According to a comment on another site:

was there when they gave him the SCROLLS. The last time I was there theey were kept in a secure case in the lobby.

The Florida Courier article carries a quote from Keith Johnson; Johnson (formerly NFL Minnesota Viking chaplain) is a United Methodist pastor who also has a interest in the Hebraic origins of Christianity, but he is scathing of Messer and of his associations with black Christians:

“Ralph Messer has been exploiting African-Americans and making a mockery of the Hebrew roots of the faith for years…” 

“For the past ten years, I have seen Messer continue to throw around Hebrew terms he does not fully understand and misuse holy objects such as Torah Scrolls to manipulate people and bring them under his authority as a “rabbi” and a supposed ‘representative of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.'”

Johnson also accuses Messer of dishonesty, after charging a friend for Hebrew lessons that never materialised:

“I then challenged Messer to read from my Hebrew Bible and he responded by making excuses for an hour about why it was ‘dangerous’ to learn the language. I continued to insist he read from my Bible in Hebrew and with great effort, Messer managed to slowly sound out the first verse of the Bible one syllable at a time. It was obvious to everyone present that Messer did not possess the knowledge to read the Hebrew language let alone to teach it.”

Messer’s website biography gives no indication of his personal background or of how he came to be a “rabbi”. However, some purported details can be gleaned from hostile religious websites. A certain Kathryn Kern presents a convoluted backstory about a dispute within the wider “Hebrew Roots” movement, which includes the following detail:

Also, the situation of the conversions of Michael and Joyce Detwiler, their sons, Boaz and his wife, and Ralph Messer and his wife, was told to me, directly by the man that gave them their conversions, Nathan Lerer.

That a Christian would feel the need to be “converted” by Rabbi may seem rather unorthodox; however, according to Kern:

None that were converted had to deny Jesus/Yeshua/Yehoshua/Yahushua/etc., directly, since Lerer never asked.

Lerer was the subject of several critical articles in the Intermountain Jewish News in the 1990s. A later story from 1999 which references these articles has been reposted elsewhere:

Nathan and Temima Feldman came to Denver’s Orthodox Jewish community, a youthful couple professing a search for deeper, more meaningful Judaism.

…Feldman says the desire of he and his wife to become authentic Jews came despite the fact that his wife’s father, Danny Miller, leads the Congregation of the Living G-d, which, like all Messianic or Hebrew-Christian groups, is based on belief in the divinity of Jesus.

…They went through what they believed was a formal conversion to Judaism under the auspices of a man who had served as a consultant to the Congregation of the Living G-d, Nathan Lerer, Feldman says… In 1991 and 1992, the IJN ran two long investigative articles on Lerer (“Temple New Israel,” Jan. 4, 1991; “Temple New Israel includes ‘Beth Messiah,’” March 13, 1992). These investigations revealed that conversions performed by Lerer — formerly the leader of the Conservative congregation Mt. Sinai in Cheyenne and the Messianic Temple New Israel in Denver — were not recognized by Israeli or American rabbinical authorities.

The IJN also revealed that Lerer’s own ordination to the rabbinate was suspect. 

It should be noted that the IJN takes a polemical tone against alleged “missionaries”, and the claim that Lerer’s ordination was “suspect” leaves the matter dangling.

Lerer died in 2002, and his father in 2004. The IJN carried an obituary of his father:

Rabbi Samuel Lerer, who some say converted more people to Judaism than anyone in the past two centuries, has died at age 89.

…The Conservative rabbi reached out to Mexicans who believed they were descended from Spanish Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition.

….The rabbi’s son, Nathan Lerer, who became a familiar face and name in Colorado and Wyoming, had a similar penchant for conversion but in a considerably more controversial sense. The younger Lerer, who passed away in 2002, was accused by the regional Jewish community of improperly mixing Judaism and Christianity in his congregations and in the way he conducted conversions. He was also charged with claiming rabbinical credentials under false pretenses.